From the time I was a kid in the 1990s, I knew our planet was in trouble. Like many young Millennials, I was addicted to television, where Waterworld introduced melting polar ice caps to my impressionable brain, and Captain Planet portrayed an environment in distress. Calls to “save the Earth” began showing up on the covers of popular magazines tied to the first United Nations climate meetings. The image of the polar bear became a harbinger of climate doom.

But it wasn’t until my 21st birthday that I really got what climate change meant. I was volunteering at a disaster relief center in Waveland, Mississippi in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina – one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, worsened by the dramatically warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In Waveland, I saw entire houses that had been picked up by the storm and dropped onto railroad tracks blocks away; cars flipped upside-down in what used to be someone’s living room. And I met a woman who had barely survived the storm by hiding under a mattress in her bathtub as the waters rose to her second-floor apartment. She came to us desperate for the basic necessities – clean drinking water and food.

With all due respect to polar bears, I realized I had been missing the real crisis of climate change. It wasn’t that global warming was killing the planet. It was that it might kill us.

Last year, I delivered a TEDx talk on inspiring new conversations and ways of looking at climate solutions. I suggested our climate communications need some changes. I urged us to reject world-is-burning narratives and regain our optimism for a hopeful future; that we see our own personal role in the changing world around us. By building more immediate connections to an issue that may still seem abstract to many, we can provide much-needed education and engagement. One of the best ways to go about this is to stop framing our climate conversations from the perspective of "saving the Earth" and, instead, stay focused on how we can "save us" and our place within nature before it’s too late.

There is a greater need than ever to connect people more personally to climate change. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a new report that shows more public support is needed to pass climate-friendly policies. While most of the 30,000 respondents across 28 countries said they “cared” about climate change, the sentiment wasn’t enough to translate into support for sweeping new climate policies in the countries.

This follows many similar reports, such as a 2021 Pew Research Center Poll that showed only 57 percent of American adults believed climate change was affecting their local communities a “great deal” or “some.” When broken down by political party, the full partisan gap becomes clear with only 32 percent of Republicans agreeing and 78 percent of Democrats. Effectively half the country doesn’t see what climate change personally means to them in their lives and communities.

The good news is we know how to build effective issue campaigns that change the world and get people to see their own story in them at the same time. We’ve done this with seatbelts, anti-smoking, gay rights, and more. Sure, there will always be some who never identify with those efforts. The hard work is never finished on any issue pertaining to the public good. But virtually everyone accepts that not wearing a seatbelt or smoking can kill you. Not as many see the imminent danger of climate change.

As climate activists and policy advocates, we must stay on the streets protesting, continue raising awareness in the halls of government, and keep effectively communicating our message to new audiences. How we communicate makes all the difference in forming connections with the audiences we need to win over. The climate community hasn't always been the best at talking to people who don’t already agree with us. We no longer have the luxury of continuing that approach and must create better advocacy strategies. Time is running out to find the messages that work to transcend partisanship. New reports show we could overshoot 1.5C as early as next year.

So, as we approach Earth Day again this April 22 what can we do?

To begin, join a protest in front of the White House or your local statehouse. Make a sign and find an event near you. There are events for the whole family including park, river, and beach cleanups. I get involved in cleanups every year and they are a great way to contribute locally.

Join me in sharing your story of what climate change personally means to you. Post a 30-60 second video on social media with #ClimateChangeMeans. We all have a voice and a personal connection to climate change. Taking action, however small, will help deepen your connection.

It’s a starting point, fueled by personal stories of those on the ground. That’s all any campaign ever is. The difference is that all of us are on the ground in this one.

The IMF and Pew studies make clear we still have gaps between how people perceive the threat of climate change and the policies they are willing to support. We’ve made great progress in recent years but we still have a long way to go toward full decarbonization. By taking action and building our connection, we can serve as examples to others and build the much-needed education, engagement, and public support we need.

Will Hackman is a conservation and climate policy expert with more than a decade of experience in U.S. political campaigning and global environmental issue advocacy.